Congo: The Epic History of a People 
by David Van Reybrouck.
Fourth Estate, 656 pp., £25, March 2014, 978 0 00 756290 9
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Africa​ , it’s said, is the mother of modern civilisation, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Congo is. Consider your mobile phone. Before it was assembled in a Chinese factory, the coltan in its capacitors may have been dug by miners in the Eastern Congo, where millions have died in a series of wars over ‘conflict minerals’, though we give this no more thought than previous generations of Westerners gave to the Congolese origins of the ivory in their piano keys, the rubber in their tyres, the copper in their bullet casings or the uranium in their bombs. The mobile phones and computers that connect us to the world also conceal our relationship to it. Some would say that’s just as well. ‘The conquest of the earth,’ Conrad wrote, ‘is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’

Today Congo – which was described as a ‘geological scandal’ after copper was discovered in Katanga in 1892 – accounts for less than 1 per cent of the world’s minerals in terms of value. The Democratic Republic of Congo (its latest incarnation) suffers from Western indifference as much as from Western exploitation. Prospectors for minerals are more likely to be African – or Chinese – than European. Yet our image of Congo hasn’t evolved a great deal since Conrad’s time. The river itself is a flowing signifier for colonial greed, rapacity and, of course, horror. As Michela Wrong wrote in her memorable book about Mobutu, any Westerner who journeys to Congo follows ‘in the footsteps of Mr Kurtz’.

And not only Kurtz. After Conrad came Gide, Greene, Kapuściński, Mailer and Naipaul. Congo is endlessly fertile literary terrain. Seven years of war there – in a country the size of Western Europe with a population of almost seventy million – occupied fewer column inches in the Western press than seven weeks of war in the Gaza Strip, yet nowhere in Africa has inspired such an outpouring of accomplished writing, from Wrong to Gérard Prunier, from Howard French to Jason Stearns, to say nothing of Adam Hochschild’s study of the Free State, King Leopold’s Ghost, and Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated.

David Van Reybrouck’s enormous history is the latest addition to this literature. Van Reybrouck is a Dutch-speaking Belgian journalist whose father was working as an electrical engineer in Katanga at the time of Moïse Tshombe’s secessionist uprising in 1960. The one-word title of Van Reybrouck’s book is an indication of its singular ambition. The subtitle – ‘the epic history of a people’ – is equally important. The Congolese, he believes, have been written out of their own history, and he means to write them back in. He draws vividly on interviews with musicians, former child soldiers, political activists and people old enough to remember the days of the Belgian Congo, including a man who claimed (plausibly) to be 126 years old. Congo, Van Reybrouck insists, is more than the ‘world’s storehouse’: it has ‘played a crucially important role in the tentative definition of an international world order’.

In the process the Congolese have paid a high price. When Henry Morton Stanley arrived in 1876 the huge landmass, mostly covered in forest and coinciding with the drainage basin of the river, had been ravaged by the slave trade and the hunt for ivory; tribal chieftains had lost out to Portuguese merchants and African-Arab warlords, notably the slave trader known as Tippu Tip. After reading of Stanley’s adventures, King Leopold II invited him to come to Belgium and told him of his grand plan to break the power of the Muslim slave traders, and to spread free trade and Christianity. But what he really wanted was a slice of ‘ce magnifique gâteau africain’. When he and Stanley sat down in 1884 to decide on Congo’s borders, Leopold ‘simply doodled’ Katanga into the map: the Free State was assembled in a fit of imperial caprice. It was Leopold’s personal property, not Belgium’s. He never once set foot in it. He celebrated its establishment in 1885 at the Conference of Berlin by sitting on his throne while a group of Congolese children sang and danced for him.

The voices of Leopold’s ‘children’ have been inaudible in even the most scathing histories of Belgian rule, but Van Reybrouck has unearthed the memoirs of Disasi Makulo, who dictated his story to his son just before he died in 1941. Born around 1870, Makulo was enslaved as a little boy by Tippu Tip, then purchased at 13 by Stanley. Instead of returning him to his parents, Stanley took him to Europe and placed him in the care of a missionary. Back in Congo, Makulo attended a missionary school ‘run like a Belgian military academy’: four out of every five male students at these schools were obliged to enter the Free State’s army, the Force Publique. Slave, servant boy, missionary pupil, soldier: not an unusual trajectory, and by Congolese standards a lucky one.

Kidnapping and then converting liberated slaves was state policy. Many were educated in isolated ‘chapel farms’ in order to prevent ‘backsliding’. Leopold hoped to transform children like Makulo into mindele ndombe, ‘black white men’. Church and Force Publique worked hand in hand to produce mindele ndombe and to ensure that Congo’s resources were extracted to Leopold’s satisfaction. The king was a shareholder in the companies that were given mining concessions, and benefited greatly from the fin-de-siècle rubber boom.

Leopold’s claim to enlightened leadership rested on the defeat of the Muslim slave traders, but the forced labour system in the Free State was far more brutal than the slavery it replaced. Millions of Congolese were forced to abandon their native crafts and gather rubber under the supervision of black soldiers in the Force Publique and their white officers. Indiscipline was punished with the chicotte, a sharp-edged whip made of dried hippopotamus skin. Summary execution was common; so were rape and forced concubinage. In one rubber expedition, 162 villages were torched, and 1346 people killed. Between five and eight million died during Leopold’s 23-year rule.

In the first few years of the Free State, Leopold’s ‘burning noble words’ (as Conrad wrote of Kurtz) seduced most Europeans, and even got him elected honorary president of the Aborigines Protection Society, but by the early 1890s the atrocities could no longer be hidden. Eventually the Belgian parliament forced him to hand the territory over: it was annexed as a Belgian colony in 1908. Most people in Congo found little reason to rejoice. Labour conditions were hardly less oppressive, though there were fewer deaths; a new regime of ‘scientific colonisation’ emerged, based on the control of African bodies in the name of public safety. Victims of sleeping sickness were confined in remote laboratories where the Belgians tested possible cures on them, such as atoxyl, a derivative of arsenic that sometimes resulted in blindness. For the colonised inhabitants the state was, as Van Reybrouck writes, ‘the gleaming, sterile hypodermic needle that slid into your arm and injected some kind of mysterious poison. The state literally got under your skin.’

It also kept you in your place. If you wanted to travel from your region of birth for more than a month, you needed to carry a medical passport. Restrictions on movement fixed people in their regional, ‘tribal’ identities, which were in turn theorised by Belgian ethnographers and promoted in mission schools – Van Reybrouck calls them ‘factories for tribal prejudice’. Congolese children learned to be grateful that ‘the Belgians set us free.’ But the Belgians wanted to lift their subjects only so high: education never went beyond primary instruction. A tiny group of évolués was permitted to emerge, but they were never allowed to assume positions of authority in the civil service or the army; at the time of independence only 17 Congolese had university degrees. Congo’s human potential was deliberately underdeveloped, on the assumption that white rule would last for ever.

Colonial rule, however, had its contradictions. As Congo industrialised, people left their villages to take jobs in factories and in white homes. Though crowded into slums and forced to leave white neighbourhoods after dark, they were exposed to a standard of living they could scarcely have imagined. Their horizons were widened further by Belgium’s wars. The First World War gave soldiers in the Force Publique their first opportunity to fight, not just to police other blacks. In 1916 they helped defeat the Germans at the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. In the Second World War they restored Haile Selassie to the throne, and defeated the Italians at Saio in Abyssinia, near the Sudanese border. ‘We shot only at white people,’ one veteran told Van Reybrouck.

That experience gave the Congolese a forbidden taste of their own power. In the 1920s, Congolese intellectuals began to write about the ‘Congolese nation’ and to imagine a post-colonial future. In 1931 the Pende tribe launched a violent rebellion; in the 1940s there were strikes in Léopoldville and a mutiny by soldiers refusing vaccination (they were afraid of being poisoned). The Belgians responded brutally to such challenges, using the soldiers of the Force Publique. The Congolese expressed their resilience in culture and religion, creating parallel worlds insulated from their persecutors.

The first of these was the nightlife of Léopoldville, birthplace of the Congolese rumba, an exuberant adaptation of Cuban son. The death of Belgian Congo was first announced on a dance floor in 1954, six years before independence, when a black man, Jamais Kolonga, saw a white woman dancing at a wedding party and asked her husband if he could cut in. ‘Just like that! It was an impulse, an obsession. But her husband nodded.’ Jamais Kolonga was memorialised in a hit song; Van Reybrouck found him living in a shack.

The sacred version of this otherworldliness was Kimbanguism, an Africanised Christianity that swept Congo in the 1920s. Simon Kimbangu was a self-styled prophet at a time when it seemed that only a saviour could deliver the Congolese from oppression. Born in 1889, he attracted a following as a young man by performing miracles; an elderly Kimbanguist told Van Reybrouck that Kimbangu had made his hunchback disappear. Kimbangu’s rhetoric had a powerful messianic streak; he spoke of a time when ‘the whites shall be black and the black shall be whites.’ Kimbangu ‘said that did not literally mean that the Belgians were to pack up and leave,’ but the Belgians weren’t taking any chances. He was imprisoned in 1921, and died in jail in 1951. More than a hundred thousand of his followers were deported in cattle cars to work camps in the rainforest, where the mortality rate was 20 per cent.

Secular​ and messianic time converged only once in Congo’s history, during the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s charismatic first prime minister. Lumumba, a beer salesman in Stanleyville who came from a small village in Kasai, was not a Kimbanguist; but he resembled Kimbangu, Van Reybrouck writes, in his prophetic manner of expressing Congolese longings for freedom. Born in 1925, a member of the small Batela tribe, he emerged as a leader in the late 1950s, calling for a unified nation free of Belgian colonialism and of the tribalism that the Belgians had done their best to foment. His closest ally was his secretary, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a former Force Publique soldier. Van Reybrouck imagines the two of them on a scooter in January 1959 just after Lumumba’s return from a meeting with Nkrumah in Accra: ‘They ride together in the muggy afternoon air … Two years later, one of them will help to murder the other.’

Mobutu couldn’t have eliminated Lumumba without the Belgians, who didn’t want to see their assets fall into Congolese hands, and the Americans, who were keen to protect their access to the Shinkolobwe mine, which had supplied the Manhattan Project with uranium. An electrifying speaker but a poor tactician, Lumumba did little to calm Western fears. At the Independence Day ceremony on 30 June 1960, King Baudouin paid fulsome tribute to Leopold’s work and implored the Congolese to prove ‘we were right to have confidence in you.’ Lumumba replied with a withering denunciation of Belgian rule that was right on every count except its timing. Such impertinence wouldn’t go unpunished.

Van Reybrouck provides a wrenching account of the plot against Lumumba, a conspiracy that involved the Belgians, the CIA, white mercenaries and Western-backed secessionists in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and southern Kasai. Two weeks after he took office, as the Belgians responded to the killing of five Europeans in Léopoldville by shelling the strategic port city of Matadi, Lumumba pleaded for assistance from the UN, then from the Americans, before going to the Soviets. He was a middle-class nationalist, not a communist, but the spectre of Soviet penetration alarmed Washington. In August, Allen Dulles cabled Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Léopoldville, to say that Lumumba’s removal was ‘an urgent and prime objective’. A month later, Mobutu staged his first coup. Lumumba came under UN protection but he was a dead man walking: Eisenhower had already authorised the CIA to kill him. Arrested by Mobutu’s men in December, he was taken to Katanga, where Tshombe’s secessionist rebels wanted his head. On 17 January 1961, he was shot dead and dumped in a well; four Belgians took part in the murder.

For African nationalists, Lumumba’s assassination was like the passion of Christ for the church fathers. Van Reybrouck instead sees Lumumba as a false messiah who knew the way to rouse the masses but not how to organise them. He acknowledges that Congo’s army was still led by racist commanders from the colonial Force Publique, but dismisses Lumumba’s attempt to Africanise its leadership as ‘sympathetic but disastrous’; his panicked overture to Khrushchev was ‘understandable but frighteningly frivolous’. He says Lumumba won no friends in Washington when he asked a CIA officer to send him a blonde prostitute at Blair House. It’s not clear why this alleged request should have mattered, or how, in his two and a half months in office, Lumumba could have dealt differently with a Belgian invasion, two secessionist uprisings and a covert American campaign to destabilise his government.

Van Reybrouck is better on Mobutu, whose rise he likens to ‘the classic story of the errand boy who becomes a Mafia kingpin’. Larry Devlin, for whom he ran a lot of errands, watched him in his role as army chief of staff and picked him as Lumumba’s replacement. The CIA paid the salaries of his allies, supplied him with planes piloted by Cuban exiles when a Lumumbist uprising erupted in eastern Congo in 1964, and helped him end the Katangan secession – with support from the UN, which had denied Lumumba’s request for assistance against Tshombe. In 1965, Mobutu declared himself president; he would rule for 32 years. His character was no secret to the Americans. In a 1968 cable, the US ambassador to Congo, Robert McBride, wrote that Mobutu ‘has apparently risen in soufflé-like grandiloquence’.

He continued to rise, thanks to his Western allies, who appreciated his hostility to national liberation movements in Africa. The pillars of his regime were the security services and the parti unique, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR – ‘mourir pour rien’, dissidents called it. Mobutu collected the secrets of his cabinet ministers by sleeping with their wives, and liberally exercised the droit de cuissage in rural villages. With his leopardskin hat and ivory cane, he cultivated the air of an African chief, but in his reliance on spectacle and terror he was a studious pupil of the Force Publique.

Like Leopold, Mobutu thought of himself as a man of ideas. But where Leopold wanted to make black men white, Mobutu wanted to make them black again. He changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga: ‘the powerful warrior whose stamina and willpower carry him from victory to victory, leaving behind only fire’. In 1971 the country was officially renamed Zaire; Léopoldville became Kinshasa; Stanleyville, Kisangani; and Elisabethville, Lubumbashi. Western hairstyles and dress were banned in favour of the Afro and the grim, lapel-less jacket called the ‘abacost’: à bas le costume. All this was advertised as authenticité, though little of it was authentically African, least of all the country’s new name, a Portuguese bastardisation of the Kikongo word for the river. Still, the affirmation of blackness struck a popular chord after more than seven decades of white supremacy, and Congo’s best musicians embraced Mobutu’s cultural revolution. Authenticité culminated in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, an extravagant pan-African festival where everyone from Miriam Makeba to James Brown came to perform at the football stadium in Kinshasa.

Still, ‘it wasn’t all circuses,’ Van Reybrouck writes, ‘there was also bread.’ Mobutu achieved some of Lumumba’s principal goals, restoring Congo’s territorial unity and nationalising the mines. For the first time in their history, ‘people truly began feeling like part of a greater whole,’ though he left them with little more than the feeling: theft became a way of life under Mobutu. ‘Steal cleverly, little by little,’ he told his people, and so they did. The state ‘lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue’, but the permission to steal helped keep it afloat.

‘There are no opponents in Zaire, because the notion of opposition has no place in our mental universe,’ Mobutu said; few Zaïrois were inclined to argue. Once again the country’s suppressed potential found expression in a defiant subculture, notably in La Sape, the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes. The sapeurs were dandies who rejected the dour abacost in favour of European styles; authenticité was turned upside down, and personal luxury became a form of defiance against the squalor of the shanties. Like Kimbanguism, La Sape wasn’t so much a rebellion as a counter-life. But it couldn’t save the Zaïrois from the rot of Mobutism. As the Belgian roads crumbled, food could no longer be brought to market; scandalously fertile Zaire became dependent on imported produce. Mobutu was rumoured to be the seventh richest man in the world, but the currency that bore his image, the zaïre, was worthless.

So was Mobutu’s army. Like the Force Publique, it was trained to suppress internal dissent rather than defend the country’s frontiers. When there was trouble on the borders, Mobutu turned to his foreign friends. During the Shaba wars of the late 1970s, when Katangan exiles invaded from Angola in the hope of staging a secession, he was saved by troops from France, Belgium and Morocco. When Van Reybrouck asked a former Mobutu fighter pilot about the Shaba wars, he replied cryptically that he had been there, but ‘not as a pilot’. Alphonsine Mosolo Mpiaka, Zaire’s first female parachutist, spent the war cooking for Mobutu on his yacht. ‘Mobutu played us, and his environment, like a Stradivarius,’ Chester Crocker, the former US assistant secretary of state for Africa, said. ‘If we dared to mention IMF and World Bank concerns it would be: “Do you really expect me to think you’re asking these questions of Israel and Egypt? Perhaps I should convert to Judaism.”’

Mobutu’s garish spending habits – his palace in the jungle included a Chinese pagoda village – enraged his patrons, but they didn’t cut him loose until the end of the Cold War. By then the kleptocracy in Kinshasa had become as embarrassing to the US as the Free State had been to Belgium. In 1990, after his friend Nicolae Ceauşescu was killed by a mob, Mobutu agreed to a reform process and dragged it out as long as he could. A Cold War fossil, he still knew the way to contain the internal opposition.

What he​ couldn’t contain was the impact inside Zaire of the catastrophe in neighbouring Rwanda. In 1994 the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front swept to power in Kigali after Hutu génocidaires murdered more than 800,000 people, most of them Tutsi. A million and a half Hutu refugees crossed into Eastern Congo, settling in camps around Goma on the northern shore of Lake Kivu. Rwanda’s new leader, Paul Kagame, lean, driven and possessed of martial discipline, was furious that Zaire had provided shelter for Hutu killers. Very few of the Hutu in Goma took part in the murders, but the death squads were regrouping in the camps, and Kagame saw them as an existential threat. The West could scarcely stand in his way after having failed to prevent the genocide. An invasion, it was thought, might also provide an opportunity to dispatch Mobutu, a friend of the former Hutu regime.

Kagame’s appraisal was shared by the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, another modernising autocrat who believed in African solutions to African problems. With assistance from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Eritrea and Angola, they set up the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. Many of the AFDL soldiers were Congolese Tutsi from the Kivus whose ancestors had migrated from Rwanda in the 18th century but who were still stigmatised in Congo as a Rwandan fifth column. Some of them were children, like Ruffin Luliba, who was playing football when he was kidnapped by a man who offered to give him a new kit. Luliba and his teammates were driven to a training camp in Rwanda, where they were forced to crawl in the mud while a drill sergeant harangued them: ‘You are the new liberators of your country.’

Luliba’s kidnapper was Déogratias Bugera, one of the AFDL’s four leaders, all of whom were chosen by Kagame and Museveni. Their spokesman was the guerrilla Laurent Kabila, a Katangan who covered his bald head with a wide-brimmed straw hat and spoke in Marxist-Leninist clichés. Che Guevara, who fought with him in eastern Congo in the 1960s, had expressed ‘very great doubts about his ability to overcome his defects’. Exiled in Tanzania for years, he had supported his ‘resistance’ by acts of banditry, notably the kidnapping of a group of Western students working at Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research camp. Kagame and Museveni resurrected him because – as Rwanda’s intelligence chief later explained – ‘we just needed someone to make the whole operation look Congolese.’

Kabila’s leadership lulled Mobutu into a false sense of security. ‘I know Kabila,’ he said. ‘He’s nothing. He’s a petty smuggler who lives in the hills above Goma.’ But the Rwandans meant business, and they were the ones who did most of the fighting when the invasion began in October 1996. The AFDL’s real leader was not Kabila but a 27-year-old Rwandan colonel called James Kabarebe; his bodyguard was Ruffin Luliba. In May 1997 Mobutu was abandoned by his generals and Kabila became the president of a new country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kinshasa welcomed the arrival of the AFDL, but the AFDL’s victory proved a false dawn. Kabila was capricious, arrogant and intolerant of opposition. ‘Liberated’ Congo was a Rwandan client state: the commander of the Congolese army was Kabarebe, and the intelligence services were dominated by Kigali. Kabila had been installed by the Rwandans but he had no desire to be Kagame’s man in Kinshasa – or to take the blame for war crimes committed by Rwandan troops. During the war of liberation the Rwandans had massacred tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. Kabila initially refused to let the UN investigate the killings. His troops weren’t responsible for them, but he couldn’t blame the Rwandans since that would be to admit that the AFDL was under Rwandan control. In a desperate bid to break free of his patrons, he replaced Tutsi commanders with fellow Katangans, trained Hutu génocidaires, and ordered all Rwandan troops – including Kabarebe – to leave. In August 1998, a week after they were expelled, Kabarebe and his men made a spectacular assault on the capital. Thus began the second Congo war, which would involve nine countries and nearly forty militias.

Kabila gave Hutu refugees weapons to fight the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a proxy force set up by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, and headed by an American-educated Marxist professor who knew more about Sartre than about guerrilla warfare. By early 1999 the RCD had seized more than a quarter of the country. Like Mobutu, Kabila was saved by friends from abroad: Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad and, above all, Angola, which was furious at Rwanda for sending thousands of troops to its border without asking permission. On the surface, the war looked staggeringly complex, a maze of similar-sounding acronyms for guerrilla groups. But it soon became a crude war over resources: a new scramble for Africa, this time by the Africans themselves. In May 1999 the Rwandan-Ugandan alliance collapsed in the diamond-rich riverbeds around Kisangani, where their armies fought ‘the way a jackal and a hyena might tug at the same carcass’. In 2000 Rwanda exported coltan worth $240 million, dug by Hutu prisoners of war. The profits from ‘conflict minerals’ peaked that year, fed by increased demand for mobile phones and the release of the Sony PlayStation 2. The higher the profits, the fiercer the fighting. The troops were largely foreign, the dead largely Congolese: by 2004 nearly four million of them. The vast majority died from easily treatable diseases, rather than bullets or knife wounds: another reason to ignore them. Kabila paid the salaries of the foreign troops defending his government with profits from the state-controlled company Gécamines.

No one was there to protect Kabila when a teenage bodyguard shot him dead early in 2001. The news was greeted with glee in Kigali. An influential theory, however, sees his assassination as the result of a conspiracy by Angola and local Lebanese diamond traders, who were angry that Kabila had awarded a monopoly over diamond sales to the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. He was replaced by his son Joseph Kabila, a protégé of Kabarebe. Kabila fils presided over the end of the war in 2003, and won two elections. His second victory came just after his government sold off shares in mining concessions worth nearly six billion dollars for a tenth of their value. They were bought up and then resold at market price by newly created companies based in the British Virgin Islands, many of them linked to Gertler.

Vladimir Drachoussoff​ , a Russo-Belgian agricultural engineer who kept a remarkable diary of his years in the province of Equateur in the 1940s, wrote that Belgian rule ‘will finally be judged less by what it has created than by what will remain of it once it has disappeared’. What remains is a barely governable country that ranks fourth in a recent list of failed states, just above Sudan; where one child in five dies before the age of five and less than half of the population has access to drinking water. While the evangelical églises de réveil popping up throughout Congo promise salvation, its leaders cling to power the old-fashioned way: by selling mining concessions to foreigners. The biggest investors today are the Chinese, who began setting up foundries in the late 1990s. In 2007, Congo signed a deal with three Chinese state-owned companies, which acquired the rights to a massive share of Gécamines’s output in return for help improving the country’s devastated infrastructure. Van Reybrouck admires China’s long-term vision for Congo; this time, he thinks, it will be different, because China is ‘not out to plunder the Katangan substrate in the short term’. The wind from the east has been blowing over Congo for some time. In the early 1890s Leopold dreamed of building five Chinese villages with two thousand Chinese labourers. The idea never came to anything, but in 1892 more than five hundred Chinese helped build the railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool. (The Chinese viceroy was perplexed when he met with an all-white Congolese delegation: ‘Am I right in thinking that Africans are black?’) Five years later, Leopold invested Congo state profits in a railway in China, with the hope of buying the route itself: ‘This is the spine of China; if they give it to me I’ll also take some cutlets.’ Instead, China is taking a substantial piece of Congo.

You might expect the Congolese to express anger at this state of affairs. Yet, Van Reybrouck writes, if you ask them how their country is doing, most will say, ‘ça va un peu,’ the verbal equivalent of a shrug. He’s not the first visitor to be impressed by Congolese stoicism. Norman Mailer claimed to see in the Congolese ‘some African dignity’ he had never seen elsewhere, ‘some tragic magnetic sense of self as if each alone and all were carrying the continent like a halo of sorrow about their head’. This apparent fatalism has exasperated some visitors. Writing about La Sape, Michela Wrong wondered why ‘the generation holding out hope for the future was busy fussing about the colour of their socks.’ But the channelling of energy into rumba, Kimbanguism and La Sape reflects a shrewd grasp of the ‘reverse Midas principle’ of Congolese politics: everything you touch turns to shit. Those who have defied this law have usually ended up in an unmarked grave, like Lumumba. Congo’s history has been ‘epic’, except in the one respect that might have lent a redemptive cast to its many troubles: the heart of Africa is still very far from seizing control of its destiny.

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Vol. 36 No. 22 · 20 November 2014

Adam Shatz writes that Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former Romanian dictator, was killed by a mob (LRB, 23 October). In fact he was executed, together with his wife, Elena, by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 following trial by a drumhead court-martial. The charges against him included genocide and the gathering of wealth. The legitimacy of the court and the manner in which the trial was conducted continue to be seen as highly controversial, inside and outside Romania; some claim that Ceaușescu was subject to unnecessary cruelty and unjustly treated. The death penalty was abolished in Romania soon afterwards.

Oana Uiorean

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